Ross Shonhan has always been on top of trends. The chef, whose CV includes idolised Japanese restaurants like Nobu and Zuma, opened his first ramen restaurant in 2012, before the soup noodles became the mainstream meal option it is today. This was followed a year later by Flesh & Buns, selling a Japanese twist on the Chinese bao.
Shackfuyu has since been added to the restaurant operator’s portfolio, and it too may prove to be ahead of its time, as the experimentation with yoshoku (Japanese takes on Western food) teeters on the fence of becoming more widespread. At the same time, Bone Daddies has grown to six locations and Flesh & Buns has expanded to a more experimental site in Oxford Circus that toys with Nikkei (Peruvian Japanese) cuisine.
“We don’t blow our own trumpet very well, and I prefer to stay behind the scenes a little bit,” Shonhan says. “I’m not a chef who’s trying to be famous or be on TV like so many, so I don’t think we get recognition sometimes for the things we create.”
The Bone Daddies Group founder is currently trialling a brand-new concept, Poke-Don, which explores the line between Hawaiian poke – a raw fish dish with rice that continues to escalate in popularity – and Japanese donburi, another bowl-based item that can incorporate a huge range of ingredients on a bed of rice. The menu includes toppings like diced salmon sashimi and galbi beef rib.
Currently offered at the Oxford Circus site of Flesh & Buns during lunchtime, Poke-Don just wrapped up its promotional period, which has been a roaring success.
“People so far have jumped on it like mad,” relates Shonhan. “They’re queuing outside half an hour before we open kind of thing, which is great and a little bit crazy!”
The true acid test, he notes, will be how well it does now that the £2/bowl offer has ended and the price goes up to £10.
Here, the former Nobu head chef talks about why the Poke-Don concept appeals to changing British eating habits as well as how to take Japanese cuisine beyond its traditional, old-fashioned image.
I’ve obviously known donburis as a very traditional lunchtime offer for a long, long time, and any traditional restaurant in London has been doing donburis at lunchtime for the last 20 years. But for some reason this country, like a lot of countries it seems, has a huge fascination with America, and until it comes from America it almost isn’t cool.
The whole poke is an evolution of what is a donburi: Japanese migrants to Hawaii cooking with those ingredients, using things like pineapple and things they find more native or more prominent in those islands, to create what is effectively a donburi for the local market.
It’s fascinating to me that everyone knows poke in this country now – or at least in London. So many people know poke as a quick grab-and-go, eat-at-your-desk kind of offer, but nobody really has a clue about donburi.
I think poke is great, but I also think it’s relatively limiting. So when we decided to do the mash-up of Poke-Don, we thought, well, we’ve got a whole kitchen in our restaurant in Oxford Circus, and we’ve got a broader range of ingredients than any of the poke shops has with our grill, with our friers and with those kind of items. And we do forms of poke in our ramen bars now, where we do fried pork and other things, that would arguably be classed as donburis anyway. So we’re just trying to blur that line a bit further and show people that actually there’s lots of delicious lunch options beyond just a poke if you open the door to donburi.
If you go on Open Table right now, almost every restaurant in London that takes reservations, from Michelin star to more casual places, seems to be trying to do an offer or gain some lunch traction of some description. And actually, as a diner, if you can spare an hour, an hour and half, to have a proper lunch you can have the best deals that you can find Monday-Friday at lunchtime. And that just says that Londoners more than ever are time poor; even if they’re not cash poor, they’re time poor.
There’s not a lot of restaurants that are maintaining their lunchtime trade, and with the rise of grab-and-go and delivery in the last few years, I think that puts more pressure on a Monday-Friday lunchtime restaurant.
We see in our ramen bars we’re always busy at lunchtime, and there’s a psychological impact I think to people seeing a bowl, whether it’s ramen or poke: it’s a meal, it’s not expensive, it’s quick. We thought, let’s push this a bit and let’s experiment. We’ve got a site that has capacity – we’ve got a few sites that have capacity – let’s do the exercise, let’s see how people respond to this, let’s have a bit of fun with it ourselves, let’s create some new things.
We think Poke-Don can be free standing, we think it could operate on it’s own, but let’s just have a bit of fun with it now and see what people think of it. As a restaurateur you can convince yourself that something is very simple and logical, but what is simple and logical to you isn’t always to the general public either. So you do need to experiment and trial it.
I think Poke-Don is very much a suck it and see. I think we will keep it where it is for sure until the end of the year. And then we’ll see. If it’s working and people are enjoying it then let’s not change it, let’s leave it there, so it’s very open-ended. I do think there’s scope to put it into Flesh & Buns in Covent Garden. I do think there’s scope to put it into its own format outside of those two restaurants. It’s exciting, because we don’t have to restrict it because we’re in our own space.
Our yoshoku at Shackfuyu is probably the most playful and in some ways the easiest to come up with dishes for, because it represents what’s modern in Japan now, and that’s kind of evolving constantly. But it takes also a lot of global influences also. A lot of people think Japanese food is very stuck in time and it’s not evolving, but it really is. Japanese chefs are traveling around the world, taking influences from Mexico and wherever else.
People don’t realise that things like ramen have only evolved in Japan over the last hundred years. Curry never historically existed in Japan; that again has only been there for 100, 120 years.
I’ve been to Mexican restaurants in Japan with Japanese chefs who have been in Mexico and they’ve evolved their own kind of flavours. Just like curry has evolved to be something uniquely Japanese, they’ve taken Mexican food and evolved it to be something a bit Japanese.
In Shackfuyu, we’ve done a few different tacos and different Mexican flavours over the years, again to reference chefs that are doing playful things with Mexican food in Japan. People don’t think of that stuff. People are still just discovering yuzu juice and ponzu and the real basics of Japanese ingredients.
There’s a very common dish that you’ll see even in ready meals in Japan, and even KFC’s menu, called spaghetti mentaiko. Spaghetti pasta tossed with mentaiko, which is spicy cod roe, is now very much a home-cooking Japanese dish. When we first opened Shackfuyu a few years ago, we did a mentaiko mac and cheese. At Flesh & Buns in Covent Garden, we do a mentaiko potato gnocchi. And that’s a reference to Japan’s playfulness with Italian food.
The two biggest effects of the changing way consumers eat are delivery/takeaway and the fact that we’ve had an erosion of traditional mealtimes. When we first opened Bone Daddies back in 2012, we still did a lunch service 12-3 and then a dinner service 5 till whenever. I think the one thing that’s happened, at least in central London, is people want what they want, when they want it, wherever they are. So we participate now in delivery with Deliveroo and takeaway, which we never did in the beginning, but then we also open our ramen bars all day, every day. That’s a big change culturally in the way people are eating and using restaurants in central London. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but it’s a fact!
I think the ramen bars have scope to go outside of London, maybe Flesh & Buns as well. Shackfuyu is a bit more complicated to deliver, therefore harder to take beyond one site. But I think Wagamama have already paved the way around the country to expose people to a pseudo-Japanese, pseudo-Asian cuisine, so for sure there’s appetite for it. We would have to evolve a bit to go into some of those markets outside of central London. And I think we could and I would like to. But operating even in central London logistically is tough enough; to start going regional on top of that, I think we’d need to be very ready for it, which we’re not yet. And that’s more us and our own internal structure than customers’ appetites.
We tore up the rule book in what Flesh & Buns in Oxford Circus was. We wanted to explore Peruvian Japanese food there, which again is another one of these natural things that happened over the last 100, 150 years, where Japanese immigrants to Peru have started cooking their own unique flavours using local ingredients around them. Things like coriander and stuff like that, which aren’t used in Japanese cooking, are quite prominent in Nikkei (Peruvian Japanese) cuisine. We’re doing a lot more ceviches and tiraditos up in that restaurant which are using ingredients like sudachi or kabosu, which are different citrus to yuzu – Japan’s got lots of different citrus which are quite unique.
The other thing we’ve introduced there is a big smoker, so we’re smoking meat and blurring the lines a little bit. It is a technique used in Japan – bonito, for example, that is used to make dash is smoked as are fish. But we’ve kind of taken that and we’re smoking cuts of meat that Westerners are more familiar with like short ribs and briskets, and rubbing them with chilli miso first. Once you put those in a steamed bao bun, it’s almost that kind of naughtiness of a cheap piece of white bread with American barbecue.
The smoker’s giving us a lot of fun. We’re still playing with the constantly. We just did a collaboration with Smokestak a couple of weeks ago to highlight this smoker that we have. Mostly it’s meat at this stage. We’re smoking ox cheeks and pulling those and mixing those with a soya-based barbecue sauce. And then panko-ing it and frying them into little nuggets that also go great in a bun.
We’ve definitely rolled [Nikkei] back a bit. We probably went too far too soon, and it’s something we’ll need to evolve over the coming years… Actually, Nobu himself, his initial call to fame was Peruvian Japanese… So [Nikkei] is more common than people realise, but we’re pushing it beyond what Nobu represents. More corn and potatoes and things like that – which is where the potato gnocchi with mentaiko came from. It references Japan, but it also references where potatoes come from, which is Peru.
There’s been loads that we’ve put on the menu that we’ve been very proud of that we’ve taken off over the years. Very early on at Bones Daddies we did a bacon, lettuce, tomato, egg and cheese ramen. The soup was a cheese soup, which a lot of people at the time were like, ‘Japanese doesn’t use cheese’ – but Hokkaido in the north is quite famous for dairy products.
There are ramen chefs that have been grating cheese on ramen and doing funky things with cheese, whether it be cheese on curry, cheese in curry – all kinds of stuff that you can encounter when you’re in Japan.
We did a kimchi tonkotsu with parmesan on top. We’ve had it on a couple of different times over the years and the last time it actually sold best, and I think that’s partly because people are starting to realise there’s more to it than what they initially encounter when in Tokyo train station.
Our tonkotsu ramen is popular, but it’s popular because people thought of tonkotsu as the one true ramen. And it’s really not, but it just seems to be the one that people in the West have caught onto the most. There’s something like 26 different accepted forms of ramen, and tonkotsu is just one of those. And that’s evolving all the time.
Some dishes that I think should definitely have had more excitement than arguably they got, it’s been a lot of the stuff that’s done in Oxford Circus. We’re doing a dessert there which is taiyaki, a fish-shaped kind of doughnut, but we use a croissant dough so it’s crispy as opposed to chewy. We fill it with Nutella and we serve it with soft-served ice cream made of something called Milo, which is a malt chocolate drink a bit like Ovaltine. It’s delicious, but a lot of people have seen our Oxford Circus restaurant as Flesh & Buns and therefore very similar to the first one in Covent Garden and haven’t explored – there’s a lot of difference on that menu.
Partnering with the Mandarin Oriental [in Dubai] to do something different is exciting and fun and gives us the opportunity to do something even more high end than what we’re doing at Bone Daddies and Flesh & Buns. We’ll see how that goes – so far it’s doing great. It could open the door to doing more stuff in the Middle East. It could open the door to doing more stuff with the Mandarin over time.
Our focus is still central London and I think we will remain committed to central London for the foreseeable future. It’s a market we think will remain robust, even during this period of uncertainty with Brexit and the current political and economic climate.